At the Thinking Housewife, Laura Wood links to and excerpts an article discussing how heroin use is ravaging Vermont. I immediately thought of Robert Locke’s 2001 essay Why We Must Not End the War on Drugs. Since Mr. Locke has apparently retired from the arena of public intellectual combat, I reprint the essay in full below.
For those in a hurry, Mr. Locke’s central point is this: If all forms of drug use were to be legalized, it would rapidly become not only socially acceptable, but subsidized and forcibly legitimized by the state, much as homosexuality has been. The results would be catastrophic. Even more catastrophic, that is.
Note also that there is a legitimate debate on the tactics we use to oppose drug abuse. Mr. Locke’s essay concerns only the key point that we must not end official opposition to drug abuse.
Why We Must not End the War on Drugs.
EVERY FEW YEARS the call resurfaces for America to abandon the drug war because we are supposedly expending great resources on a war we can’t win. I concede that some people, like FrontPage columnist Tanya Metaksa in a recent article, [AR: The link provided by Mr. Locke is no longer valid] make this mistake with honorable intentions. It therefore behooves us to remind ourselves why we are fighting and why the decent citizens of this country are under no obligation to surrender to the criminals.
Americans should not abandon fights against social ills simply because we are unable to completely eradicate them. Should we abandon the war on AIDS because we can’t win that one, either? Since libertarians are the ones who want big government to continue spending billions to enable them to do as they please in bed, they squirm at this question. There are many social problems that we can only mitigate, contain, prevent from growing, or prevent from growing faster than they otherwise would. But we are still better off fighting them than letting them run wild. That is what it means to live in an imperfect world.
That being said, why must we try to contain drug use? In predicting the likely consequences of legalization, people tend to make the classic error that has dogged social policy in this country since the Great Society: they assume that if we change the rules, we will be applying the new rules to the same set of circumstances that exist now. That is to say, if there are a group of people visibly wanting to do X, then allowing them to do so simply results in their doing so. But in fact, changing the rules also changes the social environment itself, resulting in vastly larger consequences. Welfare creates a culture of dependency, no-fault divorce makes divorce socially acceptable, and the immigration “reform” act of 1965, which now brings 1.2 million people per year into this country, was predicted at the time to result in 5,000 people per year. People are making the same mistake with their merry libertarian predictions about the consequences of legalizing drugs.
If drugs were legalized, they would rapidly become socially acceptable. The vast majority of people in this country still take law seriously, and disapprove of drugs (and refuse to tolerate drug use in their friends, children, or employees) in the final analysis because they are illegal. The fact that drug use is illegal is the only thing, in our let-it-all-hang-out society, that makes it socially possible for people to be openly intolerant of them. If everyone worked in offices where some of their coworkers were snorting cocaine at their lunch hour, it would not be socially possible to be adamant about [opposing] drug use because they would have to get along with the drug users. Given the anti-harassment and anti-discrimination laws that already exist to protect lawful activities, they will eventually be forced to do so. Thus because of the social dynamic of people needing to get along with others, what is permitted in practice will inevitably drag people’s beliefs along with it. And when the social stigma goes, the least coercive and least governmental factor containing drug use will be gone.
Thus it will follow that drug use will become socially acceptable, and given that it has already been fashionable in elite circles for years, it will doubtless be downright trendy. If it is legal, it will constitute discrimination to demand that schoolteachers who use drugs and talk about it be fired. Proper drug use will eventually be taught in schools. If you don’t want to believe me, fine: learn nothing from the experience of liberalizing social mores over the past 40 years.
But the real problem, of course, will be that drug users will vote. At first, they will simply vote to be allowed to do their thing. Inevitably, they will vote to demand that society subsidize their doing so. For example, it is very hard for a lot of people to hold down a steady job of any seriousness while running a heavy drug habit. It is much easier for such people to survive on welfare. There may one day be tens of millions of such people. They vote. QED.
This is, naturally, one of the fundamental problems of combining libertarianism with democracy: if people are allowed to do as they please, they certainly can’t be allowed to have political power or they have an intrinsic incentive to use this power in self-subsidizing and predatory ways. Frankly, it makes clear that libertarianism is flatly incompatible with democracy, as the more intellectually honest libertarians have admitted for years. It makes clear that democracy requires virtue, not just liberty, on the part of the people who live in it, because they will wield real political power over their neighbors. This the Founding Fathers understood, quaint as it sounds today. Perhaps in a tyranny where nobody cares about anybody else or has any say in governing them, the libertarian position is tenable. The other absurdity of the libertarian defense of drug use is that, as anyone who has known such a person or seen the fascinating film Trainspotting knows, addictive drugs enslave their users with a ruthlessness that surpasses any government. Is a heroin addict free?
So what happens when a majority of the population is on drugs? Well, we can kiss goodbye the disciplined society that currently makes our way of life possible. Call it the Protestant Work Ethic (a terribly unfair term, but we’re stuck with it) or whatever you like, but our economy and stable civic order are the product of a certain self-disciplined mentality and culture among the American people. They are emphatically not the product of a nation of lotus-eaters. Or opium-smokers. Interestingly, this potential situation is somewhat analogous to the situation in China at the time of the opium wars of the mid-19th century. There is a reason they went to war over drug importation, even if half of them were just fighting for a larger share of the profits.
Whenever the government expends vast resources fighting something, it is fair to ask that at an absolute minimum it not at the same time be making the problem worse though other policies. Our government currently subsidizes drug use by means of the welfare system. Serious use of many drugs renders the user incapable of holding down a steady job. In a dog-eat-dog world with no unemployment insurance and no welfare checks, this is clearly a strong incentive not to do drugs. This world is clearly not coming back, nor should it, but it would still be reasonable to remove the subsidy for illegal behavior by demanding drug tests in exchange for a government check, if only to guarantee that the taxpayers’ money isn’t spent on dope. Therefore we should institute mandatory random drug tests for all welfare recipients. It is only reasonable to extend this policy to anyone getting a government check. Student loans, for example.
This is the real way to make quantifiable progress in—I do not say win—the drug war. I agree with my opponents on this issue that militarizing the police forces of every banana republic in the Western hemisphere is an extremely crude way to go about it, and not likely worth the price. But this specific issue must not be confused with the drug war as such.